The title of the special curated program for the eighth annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is Why War?, a series of eight programs examining the motivations for armed conflict. However, an equally applicable query might be Is Bigger Better? Can the largest documentary showcase in the United States continue to expand without sacrificing its intimacy? A total of 105 films will be shown during the four-day festival, which runs Thursday, April 7 through Sunday, April 10 in and around Durham's Carolina Theatre. There is a record 78 films in competition, up from 66 last year and 62 in 2003. All but gone is use of the postage stamp-size Cinema Two, replaced by a 350-seat auditorium in the new American Tobacco Campus. In addition, the festival will again present its annual Southern Sidebar program of films. There are 10 documentary-related panel discussions and workshops, two outdoor parties, two tributes, and, oh, did I mention Martin Scorsese is coming to town?
The presence of Scorsese is undoubtedly the highlight of this year's festival. According to Full Frame executive director Nancy Buirski, preeminent in the famed director's decision to attend is the opportunity to present a special tribute to influential Italian documentary filmmaker Vittorio De Seta. In addition, Scorsese will participate in An Evening with Martin Scorsese, the latest in an on-stage interview series that has featured Jonathan Demme and Michael Moore in previous years.
Although it appears the genteel, open atmosphere of Full Frame remains intact, its burgeoning program does complicate a perennial predicament. Anyone who has blearily gazed upon the schedule of screenings and events emblazoned upon the quad-folded monoliths erected outside Fletcher Hall can attest that much of the mirth and madness of Full Frame is figuring out what films to see and which events to attend.
To help steer you through this morass of movies, I have compiled a suggested itinerary to help get the most out of your Full Frame experience. Several resources were utilized, including festival insiders and personal screening of over two-dozen notable entries. Special consideration was also given to so-called "big events," special guests scheduled to appear at particular screenings, the ability to see certain films outside the festival, and my own predilection for the films in competition.
Thursday, April 7
Gymnast (10 a.m.--12:14 p.m., Armory)
The schedule starts strong with this world premiere, which tracks the triumph and struggles of three gymnasts vying for a spot on the 2000 Olympic team. The featured athletes plus director Edet Belzberg will be present.
Carmen & Geoffrey (12:45--2:45 p.m., American Tobacco)
Check out this loving portrait of dance icons Carman de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder. Holder and local dance celebrity Chuck Davis will be on hand.
Our Brand is Crisis (3:30--5:20 p.m., Durham Arts Council)
An enthralling look at the efforts of James Carville and his political consulting firm to run the campaign of a temperamental former president of Bolivia trying to regain his office.
Bearing Witness (6:30--9 p.m., Fletcher Hall)
This year's traditional opening night feature is a world premiere documenting five female war correspondents covering the war in Iraq.
Be Here to Love Me (10:30--12:35 p.m., Fletcher Hall)
After an outdoor party in the plaza, take in an enjoyable, poetic tribute to songwriter Townes Van Zandt that has festival insiders uniformly gushing. Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt will be on-hand to perform two Van Zandt songs prior to the screening.
Friday, April 8
The Beauty Academy of Kabul (9:30--11:10 a.m., Armory)
Six American hairdressers open a beauty school in Afghanistan after the fall of the oppressive Taliban regime. Director Liz Mermin (On Hostile Ground) has called her film "a bizarre human interest story" that blends an examination of cultural and gender mores.
The Life of Kevin Carter/Battaglia (11:45 a.m.--1:35 p.m., American Tobacco)
Amongst an afternoon of overlapping and conflicting programs, catch the U.S. premiere of this account of Letizia Battaglia's efforts to challenge the Sicilian Mafia during the 1980s and 1990s. Preceding it is a strong short film about Kevin Carter, the troubled Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who covered the final days of apartheid in South Africa.
Three of Hearts (2:30--4:36 p.m., Armory)
Part postmodern love story, part exposé, this film covers eight years of a 20-year relationship between a gay male couple and their straight female partner, with whom each man has a biological child.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (5:15--7:30 p.m., Armory)
I was quite impressed with this glossy but extraordinarily informative examination of the fall of the $70 billion energy giant. Everyone who only knows "Enron" as a metaphor or buzzword should see this film.
An Evening with Ken Burns and Ric Burns (7:30--9:15 p.m., Fletcher Hall)
Skip out early on Enron's Q&A and hustle over to Fletcher Hall for an on-stage interview with the acclaimed PBS documentary directors, recipients of Full Frame's 2005 Career Awards.
Wetback--The Undocumented Documentary (9:45--11:43 p.m., Durham Arts Council)
A strong, thought-provoking exploration of the perilous odyssey facing Latin Americans seeking illegal entry into the American Dream. You should know, however, that many insiders are talking-up the world premiere of
Pack Strap Swallow (9:30--11:15 p.m., Armory), a poignant, engaging look inside the lives of young American and European women convicted of drug smuggling and incarcerated inside an Ecuadorian prison.
Saturday, April 9
39 Pounds of Love (9-10:35 a.m., American Tobacco)
This world premiere focuses on a 34-year-old Israeli man who weighs only 39 pounds, paralyzed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. He embarks on an arduous trek across the United States in search of his estranged brother and the doctor who predicted he would not live past age 6.
Why We Fight (11:15 a.m.--1:18 p.m., American Tobacco)
Director Edward Jarecki presents a sweeping exposé on the influence today's military-industrial complex has on American foreign policy. The film captured top documentary honors at the Sundance Film Festival.
Shake Hands with the Devil (2--3:55 p.m., American Tobacco)
After witnessing firsthand the genocide in Rwanda, former United Nations general Romeo Dallaire returns to the country in 2004.
Martin Scorsese Presents a Tribute to Vittorio De Seta (4-6 p.m., Fletcher Hall)
The program will include several of De Seta's famed short films plus an appearance by filmmaker Salvo Cuccia.
An Evening with Martin Scorsese (7:30--9:30 p.m., Fletcher Hall)
Be sure to queue up at least 30 minutes prior to show time. Nancy Buirski will moderate a discussion about the director's body of work, as well as eliciting questions from the audience.
Reel Paradise (10 p.m.--12:18 a.m., American Tobacco)
HBO subscribers might consider saving Left of the Dial for home viewing and instead catching this equally provocative film that tracks what happens when indie film impresario John Pierson moves to Fiji to run a ramshackle movie house. Pierson and director Steve James will take part in a post-screening Q&A that promises to be one of the more spirited of the weekend.
Sunday, April 10
The Children of Leningradsky/Gray Matter (9:45--11:44 a.m., Fletcher Hall)
First up is the Oscar-nominated Children, which provides a view inside the world of homeless street children inhabiting a Moscow train station. Following it is the latest offering from director Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), who travels to Austria to witness the burial of the brains of 700 children euthanized by the Nazis under the direction of Dr. Heinrich Gross.
A Touch of Greatness (12:15--1:34 p.m., Fletcher Hall)
A reunion of instructor Albert Cullum's fifth grade classes from 1956 through 1966 frames this tribute to the value of education and educators.
After the festival's Awards Ceremony and BBQ Lunch (Plaza, 1--3 p.m.), stick around for re-screenings of any award winners you missed (schedule to be determined). As an alternative, the New York-based DocuClub will host its annual In-the-Works session (3:30--5:30 p.m., Durham Arts Council), where filmmakers and the public gather to contribute their critique and suggestions to an in-progress documentary. This year, we'll get a peek at Moving Midway by the Independent's own Godfrey Cheshire. His film is a promising Ross McElwee-influenced examination of his family's decision to relocate their history-laden antebellum mansion due to encroaching Raleigh sprawl.
See www.fullframefest.org for full schedule.